the 2010 version of the One Laptop per Child, the XO- 2, will have a foldable e-book form
and reduce power consumption to one watt.
units in four months. It was soon
joined by major PC makers, including
Acer, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and many
smaller ones in creating a new category
of PC known today as netbooks.
While the XO was specifically designed for the poor, rural education
market in developing countries, netbook vendors target urban consumer
and education markets in developed,
as well as emerging, markets. In 2008,
the netbook market exploded, with
sales of 10 million units worldwide
mostly running Intel’s low-cost Atom
processor and Windows; sales are expected to double in 2009.16
The OLPC has been credited with
spurring the netbook market, but the
competition it spurred is now OLPC’s
own biggest challenge. Developing
countries today have a wide choice of
vendors offering inexpensive netbooks,
and, though not designed like the XO
for the rigors of poor rural villages, they
are competitive in large, easier-to-serve
urban populations. OLPC responded
by announcing in January 2009 that
its second-generation laptop design
would be licensed freely to PC makers
to manufacture and distribute, hoping
to use the resources of these firms to
get millions of laptops into the hands
of poor children in developing countries. Negroponte hopes to have a prototype in 18 months (from January),
selling them for perhaps $75 each.
The OLPC experience offers lessons for
innovators and others aiming to introduce and deploy IT innovation to benefit
the poor, as well as for the governments
of developing countries. For innovators,
we thus draw three general lessons:
Diffusing a new innovation requires
understanding the local environment.
OLPC recognized correctly that laptops could reach the poorest children
only if they were subsidized by government or other funding sources. This
is similar to rural electrification and
telephone service, which usually cannot be provided economically and end
up subsidized by government or by
charges to urban customers who can
be served profitably. However, innovators should understand that governments are not monolithic entities, nor
are they the same from one country to
the next. In some cases, funding can
be allocated by an education ministry,
in others it must be approved by the
legislature, and in others provincial or
local governments have jurisdiction.
Commitments from high-level officials
or political leaders are as binding as a
politician’s campaign promises.
26 Flying into a country and winning initial
support is only a first step and must be
followed by a sustained effort by people
with a deep understanding of the local
environment to ensure commitment
leads to money and action.
Likewise, social, economic, and
cultural environments vary greatly
across and even within countries, and
deploying new technologies requires
understanding these environments.
Innovators must consider the need for
expertise in sociology, anthropology,
public policy, and economics, as well
as for engineers, and establish coherent criteria for selecting countries to
target based on social, economic, and
political characteristics. Success in a
few developing countries is critical to
broad diffusion, as potential adopters
look to their peers for evidence of the
value of the innovation.
Innovative technology can be disruptive and trigger a backlash from incumbents. Some innovations pose a threat
to industry incumbents, who may seek
to undermine the innovator’s efforts.
The more visible the threat, the stronger the reaction is likely to be. This illustrates a dilemma for developers. A
program less ambitious and less publicized than OLPC might not attract
the attention of industry incumbents
but also might not attract the partners,
investors, and other sponsors needed
to develop and deploy the innovation.
As multinational companies direct
more attention to emerging markets
and so-called “bottom of the pyramid”
consumers, there is more likelihood
of competition but also more opportunity for cooperation as well. PC makers
across the board are still seeking a formula for well-designed, low-cost computing devices, along with a complementary delivery value chain, market
strategy, and business model.
Innovative information technologies
do not stand alone. A technology like
the XO is a system-level innovation that
requires complementary assets to be
valuable. While OLPC was able to deliver high-level design and hand off development and manufacturing to Quanta,
it had no one to handle marketing,
deployment, and support.
15 Unlike the
commercial PC companies, it was not
part of any established business ecology and lacked resources to establish
its own ecology.
For developing countries, international agencies, and philanthropists,
there are other kinds of lessons:
Photogra Ph courtesy of fuse ProJect